Elantris and the Tsundoku Condition

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I first heard Brandon Sanderson’s name when he was hired to complete Robert Jordan’s mammoth The Wheel of Time fantasy series after Mr. Jordan passed away in 2007 — gee, has it been 11 years already? The Wheel of Time was a favorite series of a few friends of mine, but I never tackled it and so I missed my first potential exposure to Sanderson’s talent. I then started seeing Sanderson’s name mentioned in discussion forums like Shelfari and Goodreads and hearing about him on bookcentric podcasts like Sword & Laser. Then some commentators I trust began shouting his name from the mountaintops after Sanderson’s The Way of Kings was released. I started doing something weird. I bought The Way of Kings, the first book of a series called The Stormlight Archive, but I was not able to read it yet. Then book two of The Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance — what a beautiful title — was released and I bought that, still having not read The Way of Kings. Then the third title, Oathbreaker, hit store shelves and I exchanged my paycheck for it. Here is the truly bizarre aspect of this entire situation: I still have not read any of them. Is it not madness to buy the second and third volumes of a series when one has not yet read the first? There is a Japanese term for this practice of continuing to buy books but not reading them: 積ん読 or tsundoku. Here is an applicable quote attributed to American author Alfred Edward Newton:

Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.

Right? If you are reading this, you are probably an avid reader like me and nodded in agreement while reading that quote. Welcome, brethren. So here I was with this condition I now know is called tsundoku and a heap of unread Brandon Sanderson novels. Three beautiful hardcover volumes comprised of three thousand three hundred forty two pages. It is intimidating. Then a colleague gave me a copy of Elantris, Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel. Unlike much of Sanderson’s later work, Elantris is a single story encased in a single volume. Being the man’s debut novel, I decided this was the best place to begin exploring his work and so on a warm, midsummer night, I entered the gates of Elantris. Holy cow, smoke, and Toledo, y’all. I enjoyed this story so much!

When the beloved Prince Raoden of Arelon wakes up one morning to discover he has been afflicted with a magical disease, his father the king secretly exiles him to the nearby walled city of Elantris. Once a majestic and beautiful city inhabited by people with godlike powers, Elantris is now a festering prison populated by the rotting unfortunates slung low by the disease known as the Shaod. Raoden must now fight the debilitating effects of his disease as he attempts to investigate the cause of the fall of Elantris with the hope of restoring the city to its former glory and healing himself and the hundreds of others with his condition. The Shaod brings madness quickly though so Raoden has little time before he is lost forever. Outside the walls, Teoish princess Sarene arrives in the kingdom to discover the man she was to marry has mysteriously died. She suspects foul play and conspiracy and begins an investigation to discover what really happened to her betrothed. As she works, he allies herself with a group of nobles with designs to overthrow the corrupt king of Arelon and becomes embroiled in a dangerous political coup just as the external forces of neighboring Fjordell threaten to assault Arelon. High Priest Hrathen of Fjordell has seen what war does to a kingdom his nation means to subjugate and so has just ninety days to peacefully convert the people of Arelon to his nation’s religion before the powerful armies of Fjordell arrive to bring destruction and death to the unfaithful.

All three primary characters are so enjoyable that I found myself conflicted when a chapter switched perspective from one character to another. I wanted to remain with each of them and continue exploring their story and their world, but I was also excited to learn more about the other two characters. This inspired me to read deeply and quickly as I thirsted for more information about each character. Even Hrathen, who is supposed to be villain, is so deserving of empathy that I found myself struggling to hate him as he executed his plans to bring about the conquest of the kingdom of Arelon. Prince Raoden is exactly the kind of leader I wish to be: decisive, intelligent, earnest, clever, empathetic. I loved his chapters and rooted so strongly for him. Sarene is a wonderful character, a strong female protagonist in a patriarchal society, fighting for truth and for civil rights in a kingdom foreign to her.

If you enjoy fantasy novels that are not just all about sword fights, stories that include intrigue and clever magic systems, read Elantris. If you have not read a Brandon Sanderson novel yet, this one will make you a fan and is an excellent example of his talent as a storyteller. I have a lot of Sanderson still on my shelf and the tsundoku still rages, but reading Elantris is a positive first step toward controlling it. One page at a time.

Blue Mars

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It took me two decades, but I finally did it. I read the final volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's landmark Mars trilogy. I had read the first two volumes, Red Mars and Green Mars, in college but then life got in the way and I never managed to start the third book. I do not often make New Year's resolutions but this year, I resolved to finish the trilogy. After so many years, I was concerned that I would not remember any of the characters or events of the first two hefty stories and the third volume would be nebulous and inaccessible. Kim Stanley Robinson adeptly reintroduces his loyal readers to the key members of the First Hundred, the original colonists of Mars, and of the pivotal moments of the previous two volumes, weaving in references to the discoveries, the betrayals, the revolution. Before too long, I was deep into book three, living on Mars with Sax and Ann and Michel and Maya, worrying with them about the future of their new home planet and the society they created.

The longevity treatments have successfully extended the lifespans of the First Hundred and those who followed them, with many of the original colonists living more than two centuries. Back on Earth, overpopulation and a great flood send hoards of immigrants fleeing to the new Mars with its forests, oceans, and clean air. So what happens when population booms and the elderly are living long lives in defiance of nature and not passing on like they are supposed to? Now you have a crisis of culture and ideology as well as population. Blue Mars explores these themes along with the environmental question of whether it is right to propagate to new planets in the name of human survival. As with the previous novels in the trilogy, chapters are presented from the perspective of alternating characters, giving readers an equal exposure to the variety of scientific ideas and socio-political philosophies that haunt the people driving the future of the planet. In addition to members of the First Hundred, readers also hear from their children, themselves now advanced in age thanks to the longevity treatments. They are Martians with full lifetimes lived as the first humans native to a planet that is not Earth and they have very different goals from their parents, conflicting ideologies for their planet.

During this time, we also learn that mankind has now successfully established colonies on other planets as well as Mars and that there are outposts in the asteroid belt. The scope of the story grows beyond just the conflict between Mars and Mother Earth as now multiple planets, each with their nationalistic pride and needs, compete for resources in a solar system that, due to improved interplanetary travel technology, is rapidly shrinking in size. It is analogous to the consequence of commercial air travel on Earth in the mid-20th century. When it takes less than a day to travel to the other side of the world when it used to take months, the world shrinks dramatically and cultures homogenize.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite authors as I have stated in my articles on Shaman and Aurora. He explains enough of the science--or invents it--that the story sounds plausible and he then surrounds that science with developed characters with whom I find myself relating in so many ways. His science fiction stories are not just a speculation of wild possibilities. They are human stories at their core. The best stories are and Robinson's stories number among the best I have ever enjoyed.

Trigger Warning

Two articles ago, I stated that I have started reading short stories between full-length books. Now I have made a liar of myself because I just read the entirety of Neil Gaiman's short story collection Trigger Warning all at once. The fact that this book was loaned to me may have inspired the straight-on-til-morning approach. Too often will someone lend a book to me that I do not read immediately and it ends up sitting on the floor where I stack books I do not own until I grow tired of vacuuming around it at which point I move it to a shelf or table until I grow tired of dusting around it at which point I either read it in a huff or just return the poor thing to its owner, unread. I am trying to change that behavior and so started Trigger Warning straight away.

I had never read Neil Gaiman before, which sounds sacrilegious for a person who claims to be an avid reader, but seeing as how there are thousands of authors and millions of books, I grant myself a pass. One simply cannot read all the things, but Gaiman seems so beloved by so many that I felt I was missing out. This feeling has grown especially strong in recent months as the television series American Gods, based on Gaiman's novel of the same name, became appointment television and water cooler material for so many of my friends and colleagues. I have now read Gaiman and I am pleased to be able to say that, but after finishing Trigger Warning, I do not feel as though I understand the depth of the man's talent everyone else seems to recognize.

While some short story collections are a series of tales written in an author's established style and voice, other collections can serve as a sampler platter, allowing the author to experiment with styles and subjects. Trigger Warning is certainly the latter and Gaiman earns points for that. He peppers poetry throughout the book and presents original stories featuring other authors' characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. I particularly enjoyed the Doctor Who story "Nothing O'Clock" though I have no frame of reference because I have never seen a single episode of the television series, a fact my friends who number among the show's fans will not let me forget. Some of Gaiman's other stories are creepy ("Click-Clack the Rattlebag" made my hair stand on end), some fantastic ("The Thing About Cassandra" is one of those stories that makes you say whaaaaaat), some melancholy. "The Sleeper and the Spindle" is an excellent re-imagining of the two classic fairy tales "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Gaiman also revisits his American Gods protagonist Baldur "Shadow" Moon in a new, original story--and one of my favorites of the entire collection--"Black Dog" as an English countryside thunderstorm forces Shadow to take shelter in an English pub nestled in a picturesque town with a spooky secret.

The best story of the collection has to be the award-winning "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...", a revenge story of high caliber. The story is so good that Gaiman took it on tour. Beginning at the Opera House in the stunning Sydney, Australia--which is well worth the trip if you have ever had the urge to visit--and eventually traveling to the United States, England, and Scotland, Gaiman performed his story before sold-out concert halls backed by the Fourplay string quartet with original artwork by Eddie Williams projected on a screen above the stage. It sounds like it would have been a wonderful experience so I have been searching the Internet for a recording. All I have found is the audio version which lacks Williams's artwork, but I may spring for it if I cannot find a video recording.

These gems aside, I found many of the stories forgettable and it is disappointing that I have to say that. After I finished the last story, I flipped to the table of contents to review the story titles and discovered I had little to no memory of many of them and it took a skim to jog my memory. They can't all be winners, but I find myself wondering if this collection is a good representation of Neil Gaiman. I am going to have to find another volume of his works and give him a second try. I hear Good Omens is great, and American Gods. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book. My favorable memory of the good stories far outweigh the unmemorable pieces so my overall experience was positive. That is the great trait of short story collections though, isn't it? If you do not care for the piece you are reading, there is another a few short pages away that you might enjoy.

Have you read Neil Gaiman? Do you have any recommendations for which of his works I should try next?

Blades of Winter

During the Spring of 2016, I read a back issue of Analog (November 2014). The Further Reading section of the magazine suggested several novels including G. T. Almasi's debut Blades of Winter. Analog's description of the book interested me enough that my brain filed the title and tucked it into the fleshy folds of my brain. Nearly a year later, I was browsing the fiction section of my bookstore when I saw the title again, emblazoned across the image of a redheaded young woman, stylish and sexy in her black leather outfit, perched on a rooftop in Paris with her assault rifle. I felt that brief electric surge of recognition and knocked the book into my shopping basket.

Blades of Winter is the first installment of the Shadowstorm series. Through some awkward blocks of exposition, readers are informed that this is an alternate history. Hitler's Germany was one of four victors of World War II along with China, Russia, and the United States of America. The victors carved up the world, creating large swaths of territory operating as vassal states of these major powers. Do you recall the real nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia after World War II? In Blades of Winter, the new world powers engaged in an arms race like no other, involving human cybernetic modification. This is the adventurous aspect of the novel that most interested me. As the story opens, we are introduced to protagonist Alix Nico, a nineteen-year-old Level 4 Interceptor as she gets herself into some bad trouble in New York City. This opening scene is --if I may be blunt-- badass and a wonderful introduction to the setting and our hero. The author does a great job of dangling carrots, enticing the reader to charge forward so they can learn the truth about whatever Alix just did and how she possibly could have accomplished such an impossible feat. It reminded me of the first time I watched Neo dodge bullets in The Matrix.

Alix is a member of ExOps, an American shadow organization populated by skilled military operatives who have undergone invasive surgeries to enhance themselves with advanced cybernetics to increase their field effectiveness. The other major powers have their own organizations though, so Alix and her colleagues enjoy no significant advantage on the field of battle. ExOps agents are sent into the field in small strike teams. Team members are awarded levels commensurate with their experience and operational success and earn cool titles like Infiltrator, Vindicator, and Liberator that describes their battlefield role. How would you like to have Vindicator on your business card? Alix is young and brash, constantly pushing the limits of her ability, often endangering herself and her team much to the chagrin of her superior officers. Her behavior is understandable though, as her father was the most talented ExOps figure in history until he disappeared. Alix has big shoes to fill and a legacy to live up to.

For the vast majority of the novel, I enjoyed the experience but in the early chapters, I found myself criticizing the author's writing in isolated pockets. At one point, Alix is under enemy gunfire and has taken cover behind a "crate of stuff". Stuff? I was irritated that Almasi cheated me out of a better picture of the situation by plopping a nondescript "crate of stuff" in the scene. Similar descriptions are used elsewhere, but I finally understood what was happening. It was not Almasi being lazy, it was narrator Alix being a teenage superspy concerned more about being shot than reading the shipping label on the crate of stuff to find out whether she was hiding behind a box of teddy bears or replica 15th century Ming Dynasty vases. Alix cares about survival, earning more powerful and cooler cybernetics, and taking out the bad guys. She does not care a lick about what is inside the crate of stuff behind which she is hiding. Once that realization clicked, I instantly forgave Almasi for what I had decided was bad writing and gave him credit for character development.

Throughout Blades of Winter, readers are treated to a globetrotting adventure as Alix and her team are deployed to exotic locations in an attempt to unravel a conspiracy that may reveal the true fate of Alix's father. The info-dumpy alternate world history blobs aside, Almasi does a good job of setting the tone and style of his novel through the use of chapter interstitials such as of newspaper articles, data files, and operation reports. These brief excerpts provide useful information and are a welcome break in the fast and frantic pace of the story.

I do not often read action novels like this, but I found myself enjoying Blades of Winter and plan to seek out the second volume of the series, Hammer of Angels. It is popcorn cinema in print form and just as I leave a fun action film feeling entertained, so did I feel as I read the last page of Blades of Winter.

Wastelands

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I do not often read short stories. There is no good reason for this other than I find myself picking up a full-length novel most of the time when I am in the mood for fiction. On rare occasion though, I find myself with a short story collection in my hands. I discovered Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams sitting on the New Science Fiction Releases shelf at my local bookstore… X number of years ago. Holy smokes, I just opened the book to the publisher page to check the book’s publication date and found the retail receipt, yellowing and so faded that the print is barely legible. February 23, 2008.  Okay, so I have owned this book for nearly ten years. Like I said, I do not often read short stories.

A couple of years ago, however, I decided to read a short story between each book or two. This would allow me to continue reading something while putting my thoughts together for my blog entry about the previous long-form work. The practice has worked rather well and I have read some excellent short stories recently, be they in short story collections like Wastelands or in literature magazines like Tin House or Analog.

Wastelands is an impressive anthology of post-apocalypse stories written by some literary stars like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Octavia Butler. It also introduced me to several writers who may be known to more prolific readers than I but who are new to me. Discovering a new writer is such a treat and that is the greatest benefit of anthologies such as these. All of the stories in Wastelands are good and some are downright great. I read the book over the course of a few years and do not recall every story, but a few notables stand out in my memory. “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin was the first story in the collection that elicited a palpable emotional reaction. Cory Doctorow’s “When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth” is funny, not in a comedic way but rather in its truth and plausibility. I suppose that makes it frightening as well, but all of the stories in Wastelands are frightening in one way or another. “The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt and “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett Jr. follow resourceful wasteland entrepreneurs traveling from town to town with their carriages of curiosities, trading pleasure and fascination for another gallon of rare gas or a hot meal. I found myself amused that, when civilization falls and society reverts to tribalism, there may still be traveling showmen doing what they know how to do to, hoping the people they meet want what they have to offer enough to pay for it. “Killers” by Carol Emshwiller tells the story of a young woman struggling to survive in a remote town years after a domestic war has plunged her nation into a pre-industrial period. Maybe the war still wages. They do not know because the men who went off to fight it more than a decade ago have not returned and the modern society and infrastructure has collapsed so there is no news, no radio. Then a mysterious man appears at her window one night, filthy and starving. Who is he? Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World As We Know It” was a different kind of apocalypse story. It was deeply personal and the second story in the collection to cause some feels. I loved Bailey’s writing style and would like to read more from him. There are many more stories in this anthology, all of them well worth reading.

The most terrifying aspect of apocalypse fiction is that so many of the situations presented in the stories can actually happen. Perhaps these tales can serve to as a warning and help us prepare. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a great anthology, the first compiled by editor John Joseph Adams. He has opened my eyes to the true value of story anthologies and you can bet I will more willing to grab one off the shelf if I see his name on it. I highly recommend it for fans of the apocalypse subgenre, but I think any science fiction fan would enjoy it. Even readers of more mainstream novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find a lot to like in this collection even if they claim to not enjoy genre fiction.

Slade House

David Mitchell continues to blow my mind.  I have now read four of his seven published novels (the other three are in my possession and high on my TBR) and all of them have been four- or five-star reads.  I recently finished his latest novel, Slade House, and immediately sent a copy to my mother for her birthday. She read it right away and said it kept her awake at night because it freaked her out so much.  I did not quite have that reaction to it as I was more intrigued by the Slade House and was too consumed trying to figure out its puzzle to be afraid.

This is a different kind of haunted house story. There are no boo scares, no fanged monsters. I felt more of a gradually growing disquiet. Mitchell teases the reader along just as Slade House’s mysterious inhabitants tease new visitors into their grasp. The clues Mitchell presents are an irresistible trail of bread crumbs. Oddities are revealed at a perfectly measured pace, each one more bizarre than the last, each one building the intrigue until the reader is completely trapped in Mitchell’s clutches and has no choice but to give in to the madness.

Part of what makes David Mitchell so special to me is his diversity.  His novels are contemporary fiction but some of them have traces of science fiction, historical fiction, or supernatural elements –and in the case of his superb Cloud Atlas, all of those are present.  Slade House is a bit spooky, not quite horror, but definitely could share shelf space with the best of the genre. His characters are equally diverse. He writes men and women, children and the aged, multiple nationalities in such a way that I think he must be wonderfully observant, introspective, and in touch with humanity. I have yet to read one of Mitchell’s characters and feel they are inorganic. Each might as well be a real person.

As Mitchell has done with every novel he has written, he sneaks a character from a previous work into Slade House in what was for me a scintillating way.  And who knows which of the characters in this novel will appear in a future work?  I have said it before but I love that Mitchell does this.  It adds a bit of a game layer to his novels that I enjoy.  I find myself reading the story quite happily, immersed fully in the yarn and when I happen upon a familiar name, I stop to figure out in which book that character exists.  My brain is then sent spinning as I consider all of the possibilities and repercussions of these two stories existing in the same literary universe.  I must then reconsider everything I have read up to this point and ponder how the new novel’s events may affect or may have been affected by the events of the previous novels.  It is a wonderfully immersive mental feast, the literary equivalent of filet mignon with a glass of Sangiovese.

Slade House is one of Mitchell’s shorter works.  The American hardcover edition is a squat little yellow book 238 pages in length. Even a slow reader like me was able experience the full story in a short period of time. For readers who have not yet experienced David Mitchell, this is probably a great introduction to him. Reading the story will not be a huge time commitment, unlike one of his meatier pieces like The Bone Clocks or my beloved Cloud Atlas.  The style of Slade House provides a new reader with a good look at how Mitchell constructs his stories, plays his characters, and tantalizes his audience.  If you are already a fan of David Mitchell and have not yet read Slade House, I suspect you will not be disappointed.  If you are curious about this brilliant author, give Slade House a try and then prepare to add his entire bibliography to your TBR.

Abomination

England, the 9th century during the reign of Alfred the Great. A bloody war ensues as Vikings raid the English countryside. King Alfred, desperate to put an end to the loss of English life agrees to grant the invaders vast portions of land in exchange for peace. The Archbishop of Canterbury locates ancient arcane scrolls and through them obtains the power to create horrible abominations from any living creature. His experiments begin small with farm animals, but as his new power warps his mind, he begins to use human subjects to create an army that can destroy the Viking invaders despoiling his homeland. King Alfred fears the Archbishop’s army will be a greater threat to England than the Viking squatters so he calls upon his champion Wulfric to hunt down and stop the Archbishop before too much harm is done.

No stranger to storytelling, Gary Whitta cut his teeth as a video game journalist and is now building a successful career as a screenwriter with credits including The Book of Eli, After Earth, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He was also involved as a writer and story designer on Telltale Games’ award-winning video game The Walking Dead, based on the television series and comic book of the same name. I have enjoyed Whitta’s work ever since I heard him appear as a special guest on the PC Gamer podcast several years ago, long after he had resigned his seat as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine in favor of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. His easy nature and witty humor delivered in his comforting British accent charmed me right out of the gate. He seems sincere and genuine and like the kind of guy with whom I would love to chat over a pint of ale.  Much of Whitta’s previous works are set in post-apocalyptic or science fiction settings. Whitta leaps backward several centuries for his debut novel Abomination, a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, a real world setting of Dark Ages England spiced up with magic and monsters.

As the opening chapters unfold, the story is a typical fantasy adventure starring the king’s champion sent on a quest to destroy evil and save the kingdom. Pretty standard, right?  It is the kind of plot my creative writing professor encouraged me to avoid. And so the story goes for the first few chapters but I was surprised to find myself acquiescent to it. I have recently read a few dry non-fiction titles that I was not able to muster even one iota of enthusiasm to review, so I was in the mood for something light and fun. Fun I had, though it was the kind of fun one has sitting on a slowly rotating carousel, familiar and soothing. However, as the first act of Abomination drew to a close, I found myself disappointed because everything happened too fast, too easy. What could have been interesting scenes of character development, political intrigue, and exciting action are instead blocks of summary text. It is heavy on exposition, an overlong prologue reminiscent of the opening of the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It seemed as though Whitta were rushing through the first act to get to something else and I began to suspect the story was about to head in a different direction. Sure enough, the novel veers left at Albuquerque in chapter eight and with that one chapter, Abomination changes from typical fantasy fare to something much more intriguing.

The scope of the story zooms in from kingdom-spanning war campaign to an intimate character-driven tale about a grizzled old warrior and a feisty young girl, reluctant companions who grow to respect and protect each other. Wulfric is the quintessential hero, honest, honorable, and valiant. He endeavors to protect those around him, even to his own detriment. Far removed from his days as King Alfred’s champion, Wulfric now wanders the countryside a broken vagrant unrecognizable as the hero of the realm, but he remains as strong and patient and disciplined as he was during his glory days. Indra, in contrast, is young, impulsive, and hot-headed. She is attempting to complete her year-long initiation trial and earn status as a paladin of the Order, an elite cadre of monster hunters. Both characters suffer demons but have noble goals and the story is most interesting when these two are together. They remind me of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars Episode IV and that ain’t a bad thing. It is their story Whitta really wants to tell, but he chews up a hundred pages to get there. I fear many readers will bail out too early and miss Wulfric’s and Indra’s excellent interactions which comprise the bulk of the second act. Wulfric and Indra are interesting and likable characters. I bear not the burdens of either character, but I was still able to relate to them in some measure: the desire to perform well, a sense of duty, loyalty to loved ones. These are probably traits to which most decent people can relate.

Sadly though, the conclusion of the novel is as weak and rushed as the first act. Wulfric’s burden is solved in a manner that is the literary equivalent of yanking a power plug from the wall to stop a nuclear meltdown. It is woefully unsatisfying in its simplicity and presentation. It is a shame that such weak first and third acts mar what could have been a great book. Still, I found myself entertained throughout despite the flaws. I wonder if Whitta’s background as a film writer influenced the structure of this novel right down to the Hollywood ending. So much of it seems like narration or camera direction. Abomination might even make an entertaining movie if the filmmakers can find a way to do the middle of the story justice while cleaning up the beginning and writing a more satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, I enjoyed my experience with Abomination, but if your leisure time is scarce and you want to spend it on a sure thing, read something else. If you are a voracious reader willing to take a chance on something a little different, you might find it here after chapter eight. I will definitely read Whitta’s next book and will report on his progress as a novelist. I still dig the guy even if I did not completely love his debut.

Ghostwritten

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I have had David Mitchell’s 1999 debut novel Ghostwritten on my to-read pile for far too long.  I bought it several years ago, shortly after finishing his wonderful Cloud Atlas, which is darn near a masterpiece in my opinion, but too many other books were in front of it on my list.  At some point though, I grew impatient and may have manipulated the composition of the pile itself to cause Ghostwritten to float to the top.

Much like Cloud Atlas – or perhaps I should say that Cloud Atlas is much like Ghostwritten in its construction – Mitchell’s debut is presented as a series of stories, each centered on a different character and with each character’s story somehow linked to the story of one or more of the others in the book.  These little Easter eggs scattered throughout the novel added an extra layer of entertainment and they engaged me as a reader more than if Ghostwritten was just a short story collection. If a character shows up for two pages and then leaves, I know I need to keep that character in mind because they might show up in someone else’s story several chapters later, or they might even be the primary character of a later chapter.  I love this!  What I find even more fun is that there are characters from other Mitchell novels in Ghostwritten and characters from Ghostwritten in other Mitchell novels.  This establishes all of his novels in the same world and while some enemies of fun would call this a gimmick, I call it a feature and an entertaining one at that.  I enjoy tracing these character appearances from one novel to the next. I am tempted to purchase every David Mitchell novel and read them in sequential order and then create a timeline. Oo, what if I set up a bulletin board with photos and pins and colored string to keep track of it all?  Yay, project! *giddy dance*

Ghostwritten’s chapters do form a connected narrative, but each is an excellent story on its own.  This is good because, even as I find delight in them, I often found myself questioning the purpose of these connections.  Why does Mitchell structure his novel in this way with a new primary character for each chapter?  Is the book about chance and randomness?  Is he making a statement about how we are all connected in some kind of universal Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way?  Even having finished my reading of the book, I am not certain I completely understand it.  I admit that makes me feel like a bit of a fool, especially considering how much I enjoyed the novel. I like the pretty colors!  What I do know is that David Mitchell’s novel is a series of wonderful stories of humankind.  In each of his characters, diverse in gender, age, environment, morality, and vocation, I found something to which I could relate or empathize.

I feel like I owe Ghostwritten a second read at some point.  Mitchell is a talented author so I feel like my lack of ultimate understanding is likely my fault and not his, especially considering I did most of my reading just before bed after a long work day.  Such an exhausted state of mind and body is not conducive to full comprehension of a clever story.  For now though, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed Ghostwritten and look forward to finding out which of its characters show up in David Mitchell’s next novel.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

I am an unabashed fan of Patrick Rothfuss.  Having read his blog, followed him on various social networks, participated in his charity Worldbuilders, and watched several video interviews and his brief YouTube panel discussion program The Story Board, I can tell the man is just an all-around good man.  I adored his first novel, briefly titled The Name of the Wind, The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One.  The second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two disappointed me, though it is still a good story.  Now Rothfuss gives us The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a novella centered on the enigmatic Auri, the young woman who lives in the Underthing, a network of passages and rooms and sewers beneath The University.  Auri is introduced in the first book of the series and is for me one of the most interesting characters in Rothfuss’s world.  When protagonist Kvothe first meets Auri in the first volume, she is timid and exhibits an almost feral behavior.  As Kvothe learns more about Auri, it becomes clear that she is a bit disturbed, off-kilter, though intelligent.  When with Auri, everything must be just so and one must observe proper manners or she will scurry away and disappear.  She is a curious character and one I’m very happy Rothfuss explored in this novella.

While reading this book, I was constantly amazed by Rothfuss’s ability to write so clearly from the perspective of a broken mind and make the pieces make sense.  After seeing her world through Auri’s inquisitive eyes, I felt like I began to understand her.  What most people would see as irrational behavior started to appear… reasonable?  No.  Not reasonable.  Not at all, but darn it, I could see what she was going through.  She’s off her rocker, but I wanted to be there.  What do most people do when they see what they perceive to be a mentally ill person in public?  Think back to the last time you were strutting down your own Main Street, mocha latte in hand, and ahead of you was one of those people – maybe they were pacing to and fro, touching the tree by the curb and then the top of the fire hydrant and then the tree and then the fire hydrant, tree, hydrant, tree, hydrant.  I think most of us avoid eye contact and accelerate, hoping they don’t try to talk to us and if they do try to talk to us, we ignore them and walk faster.  That can’t be just me.  I’m a good person.  I am!  Sigh.  Anyway, Auri is one of those people but Rothfuss makes me want to not speed past her.  I am not sure if that is empathy on my part or on the part of Patrick Rothfuss.  Probably his because he is such a talented storyteller.  But I’m still a good person.  Shut up.

I love Rothfuss’s titles.  This one, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, sounds like a Walt Whitman poem, is his best one yet.  It is a perfectly Auri title, sparking my curiosity, drawing me close and by the time the story was over, it made absolute sense to me, particularly with regard to Auri.

I initially wondered why this novella exists.  The author’s fans are clamoring for Day Three of the Chronicles.  Was Slow Regard a tease, an appetizer, a stop gap?  His own Author Foreword tells prospective buyers that they might not want the book.  He goes out of his way to dissuade folks from spending their money on it.  Rothfuss seems to worry that readers who are using Slow Regard as their introduction to him will be confused and dissatisfied with him and avoid his future work.  Personally, I think he is not giving himself his due credit.  On its own, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a quirky little story starring a quirky little character and it is quite enjoyable all on its own.  Having read the preceding novels, I had a bit of experience with Auri already so had an idea of what to expect, but I think an open-minded person reading this story in a vacuum would find the story and Auri odd and charming.  As for why the story exists at all, Rothfuss stated on his blog that it is too long to fit reasonably well within Day Three and so it made sense to release it on its own.  I’m awfully glad he made that decision and did not choose to kill this particular darling.

The Night Circus

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I wish I could remember my first visit to Disneyland.  I wish I had clear memories of the wonder and delight I must have felt at the sights and sounds and smells.  I wish I could recall the first time I entered a professional baseball stadium and saw for the first time the emerald green field stretching out before me.  There are so many experiences I wish I could have again for the first time.  These events are synonymous with childhood for many of us and until science develops a way for us to relive our memories, once these memories have faded, they are lost forever.  This is an overly sentimental way of me saying that the experience of reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus felt very much like what I imagine those first-time memories might be if I could recall them. 

What a delightful way to start the new year!  Elegantly written and rich with imagery, The Night Circus tantalized my senses the way no novel has before.  Morgenstern’s use of color and scent put me right in the middle of that circus.  I was there among the tents.  I could smell the popcorn and caramel apples and hot cocoa.  I don’t know that I have ever noticed an author’s costume design before, but as costumes are an important part of any circus’s visual impression, so too are the attire of Morgenstern’s characters whether they are at the circus or not.  I felt like I always had such a clear picture of what everybody looked like though Morgenstern does not spend much time describing what the characters look like, only their clothing.  My imagination invented the rest quite easily because the rest of the picture was so clear.

This is a different kind of circus.  There are no clowns, no tutu-bedecked bears riding unicycles.  This circus is magical and surreal.  There is a labyrinth, a vertical maze made of clouds, gardens of ice.  The circus draws people to it with an almost preternatural power.  A community of fans develops.  Calling themselves rêveurs, these fanatics wearing clothing items of red – a hat, a scarf – to identify them as members of the group and follow the circus from town to town.  After experiencing the circus myself, it is easy to see how such a community would develop.

Part love story, part mystery, The Night Circus takes place over a period of three decades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and follows two different sets of characters – Marco and Celia, opponents in a magic competition and Bailey, a young boy who grows to love the mysterious and beautiful circus – at various points in their lives.  Peppered in between these stories is a series of second-person (you don’t see that very often) chapters describing your own experience in the circus, the conclusion of which surprised me and left me smiling.  The two third-person narratives were fascinating and exciting, each with a bit of intrigue to keep the pages turning.  For several nights, I found myself still awake reading way past the time I’d usually be asleep.  I just couldn’t put the book down.  It was a joy to read and I am sorry it is over.

Misery

I first experienced Misery in 1990 on the silver screen.  I was fourteen years old at the time and Kathy Bates scared the bejesus out of me.  I started reading the novel a couple of years later, but did not progress very far due to reasons that now escape my memory.  Recently, and once again inspired by my niece, I returned to what may now be my favorite Stephen King novel.

Famous author Paul Sheldon loses control of his vehicle in a Colorado snowstorm and crashes off the road.  Annie Wilkes, a certified nurse, extracts the unconscious and seriously injured writer from the wreckage.  With the snowstorm raging, the phones are out and the roads are blocked so getting Paul to a hospital is impossible.  She brings him back to her secluded home to nurse him back to health and it is there she learns who he is:  her favorite author.  Oh what a treat for her. 

As expected, the film took quite a bit of creative license with the story and while I enjoyed it, the novel is leagues better.  Where the film included multiple points of view, the novel is told exclusively from Paul’s perspective.  When Annie is not in his convalescence room, we have no idea what she is up to and that frightens me much more.  Just as with every Stephen King novel I have read, the characters are the strongest part of the book.  When the majority of your entire novel has just two characters, they’d better be strong characters and King delivers as he always does.  Annie Wilkes is one of the most frightening characters I have ever encountered because she is so vile, so sadistic, and so believable.  She is not a monster under the bed.  She walks among us, a hideous beast hiding in plain sight behind a sweet smile.  We first see her as a benevolent rescuer but in short order, the veneer begins to crack and the true Annie is revealed.  O, and the things she does to poor Paul!

Misery is truly one of the most intense books I have ever read.  Anyone who has only seen the film needs to read the novel.  In many cases, the film is enough like its source material that one could probably get away with not reading the book if one wasn't in the mood, but Misery demands to be read.  King is so clearly expressing some personal concerns here that his words need to be consumed to gain a deeper appreciation of the author as a human being.  Fortunately, Stephen King has never been in the same situation in which he places Paul, but you just know he received some fan mail that got his brain pistons pumping.  When you are as famous a person as Stephen King, you no doubt come into contact with all kinds of people, most of whom are perfectly decent folk, but a few of whom are Annie Wilkes.

In a heart stopping instance of life nearly imitating art, Stephen King was struck by a car and seriously injured during his daily walk in June 1999.  I don’t imagine that in that exact moment he subconsciously prayed that the driver was not an Annie Wilkes, but as he recovered in his hospital room, one has to wonder if he was grateful not just to be alive, but to be in a public hospital with the story plastered all over the news instead of being rescued by a deranged fan and secreted away to a secluded location in the mountains.  As Paul Sheldon wrote during his imprisonment in Annie’s house, so too did Stephen King write after his accident to help himself heal.  Being in such pain, King had considered retirement but in a recent interview with Bangor Daily News, King recalled that his wife set up a writing desk for him and encouraged him to work to help him mentally recover from the accident.  It worked too because King has written over thirty novels, non-fiction books, and novellas since his accident.  We all owe Tabitha King a note of gratitude.

Glorious

I don’t often read Westerns.  In fact, I don’t recall ever reading one until now – not even Lonesome Dove if you can believe it – but man, I love Western films.  I have my Dad to thank for that.  I remember being a little kid, he and I sitting down on Sunday afternoons to watch Channel 5’s feature presentation of the week.  This was back when the television had an actual dial you had to turn to change channels.  You actually had to get up from the sofa.  Eff that ess.  But Dad and I would sit there side by side, each of us with a plate of peanut butter crackers and a mug of chocolate milk and a Western film on the television.  I will now forever associate those food items and Westerns with my Dad.

For Father’s Day this year, I sent him a copy of Jeff Guinn’s Glorious after seeing it at my local Barnes & Noble and reading some good reviews.  After he read it, I decided I wanted to read it so I bought a copy for myself.  Not quite the same as sitting beside him on the sofa watching John Wayne six-gun some stagecoach robbers, but the sense of nostalgia was there nonetheless.

Glorious begins with a brutal prologue and then jumps into the main story about a young man on the run, looking for a place to hide, but also with designs on a lady.  He lands in a dusty little town in the middle of the Arizona Territory where he hears this lady might be because when you’re on the run from danger, the first thing you want to do it put a person you care about in that same danger.  Glorious includes several Western staples:  prospectors hunting for precious ore, a smelly saloon with bad beer and bar brawls, a wealthy rancher, the threat of attack by Apaches, and the ever-present Sheriff.  The supporting characters are well-written and I enjoyed getting to know them and felt for them when they struggled.  Even more so than the characters, Guinn nailed the setting.  I could clearly picture the town of Glorious, knew where each little adobe building was, felt the dust and grit on the hotel floor underfoot, the oppressive heat so early in the morning, and could smell the beer and stale sweat of the saloon at night.

As expected, or at least as I had hoped, it all comes together in a good old-fashioned Western shoot-out but just when the climactic conclusion is due, the story is interrupted by one of the most conspicuous deus ex machinas I have ever read.  My disappointment was palpable as the book dropped into my lap.  As Dad and I agreed, it seemed like an amateur move, though forgivable considering this is the first novel from Guinn, a veteran of non-fiction tales like The Last Gunfight and We Go Down Together.  I’m not giving up though.  Jeff Guinn is writing a follow-up to Glorious and the first ninety-nine percent of it was good enough for me to give the next one a read.  I feel like I want to watch Silverado now though.  And snack on some peanut butter crackers and chocolate milk with my Dad.